A Raleigh police unit formed last year to focus solely on impaired drivers has yielded dramatic results over the past 11 months – an increase of more than 1,000 driving-while-impaired arrests and a 63 percent decrease in drunken driving-related fatalities.
Officers recorded 2,843 DWI arrests from Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, according to Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue. That number is up from the 1,781 arrests reported in 2013.
The police department also reported 30 traffic fatalities this year, with 10 related to drunken driving. By comparison, the city logged 47 fatalities in 2013, 27 of which were related to drunken driving, said Lt. Tim Tomczak, who supervises the department’s DWI enforcement unit.
“When DWI arrests go up, DWI fatalities go down,” Tomczak said this week. “That’s music to my ears.”
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Tomczak said the department’s increased focus on inpaired drivers was the result of a directive by Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown and her command staff.
Late last year, the department received a $525,270 federal grant for DWI enforcement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The cash funded a unit of four officers and one sergeant – along with vehicles, equipment and training – for three years.
The department already had been conducting monthly DWI and seat belt checkpoints, and patrol officers regularly check for drunken and impaired drivers as part of their duties. But members of the DWI squad have only one duty: the apprehension of impaired drivers. The grant mandates that the unit’s officers answer other 911 calls only if they involve violence.
The squad was responsible for 800 of the department’s DWI arrests this year. “That’s 200 arrests per officer,” Tomczak said.
Still, the entire department is responsible for the overall increase in DWI arrests, he said.
“Our best patrol officer averages at most 50 arrests because they have to answer 911 calls.” Tomczak said. “But if you take out the 800 arrests (by the special unit) that’s still more (made by other officers) than last year.”
Downtown Raleigh’s growing night scene was a chief reason for seeking the grant, said Tomczak, who helped develop the application. Still, DWI squad is on the lookout for drunken driving throughout the city, particularly on its larger thoroughfares.
The police department has divided the city into six districts and while there is a focus on the downtown district because of the high concentration of bars and restaurants, Tomczak said each area has a concentration of “hot spots” where drunken driving is likely to occur.
“Why? It’s hard to say,” Tomczak said when asked why certain areas have more impaired drivers. “We’re not able to pinpoint why. We just know it’s a hot spot.”
The idea for the DWI squad really began to take shape after an early-afternoon crash on St. Patrick’s Day in 2013, when a motorist accused of drinking and driving ran head-on into a car on Wade Avenue. The collision killed an elderly couple who were going home to watch the ACC basketball tournament after spending the morning at church services.
“Every time I lock somebody up, I hate it,” Tomczak said. “But on the flip side, I know I may have saved somebody’s life, maybe my own loved ones.”